It was a punch in the gut. I felt abandoned. I lost heart.
One by one our hiking party of six had atrophied to one: Me. I was the last man standing.
At 68, I recognize time waits for no one. Yes, the Great Divide Trail (GDT) would still be there next year, but would I?
Could I walk away from a year of planning and training? I decided to do the trip on my own. Immediately an intense fear gripped my chest. I lost my appetite.
My partner Dale looked up from his phone and said, “I just ordered you a Garmin inReach.”
I wouldn’t say I’ve always been training for the day I could hike the GDT. Self-propelled travel is just how I roll. Not extreme stuff, mind you: every couple of weeks, rain or shine, summer or winter, me, Dale, my buddy Mason, his wife Renée, and maybe her brother Greg would go on a hike or backpacking trip.
Last year, Mason got his eye on the GDT Barnaby Ridge Alternate (Red Rock to Southforks). Knees and jobs were issues with the others, so it had ended up just us two on the ridge that August.
So stunning was our trip that we vowed to get our spouses out in 2021. We’d scale it back a bit. Vacation days were locked down.
Then Dale’s number came up for a new knee. Dale was out for the season.
Renée got her real estate license, business started booming, and she was too busy to get away.
A traverse from Lake of the Horns and over to Carnarvon Lake proved too intense for Greg. The heat hit him hard, and his leg seized up. We all realized that lengthy days on the GDT were impossible for him.
It was down to me and Mason—again.
The tears Mason had developed in his Achilles hadn’t healed sufficiently. He ignored the maps spread on my coffee table. His usual smile and good nature were gone. He was a different person.
Mason knows my hiking attitude and capabilities better than anyone. He told me he had total confidence in me to complete Section A of the GDT solo.
During our six-year friendship, it became apparent that we have compatible ways of dealing with the outdoors. We rise about the same time. We manage similar levels of difficulty. We don’t stop to snack or rest very often. We don’t indulge negativity.
But unlike me, Mason is an outstanding photographer. He started creating video stories of our hikes. During this time, I designed and manufactured the Unightie, a sleeping garment for backpacking. His visuals became the core of my Unightie website and advertisements. And now our biggest adventure so far would be lamely captured on my iPhone 11 Pro—if I remembered to take it out at all.
I wasn’t overly concerned about my strength and ability. Although I am only five feet tall and 98 pounds, I had backpacked up to nine days, climbed peaks and forded rivers.
I wasn’t worried about gear. I’d been finetuning gear for decades. If I couldn’t find exactly what I needed, I modified it. Or, in the case of the Unightie, built it from scratch. The day before I was to leave on the GDT, a 22-gram bonus came in in the form of a Thermarest Parsec summer 0 C sleeping bag for me to test. I was counting every gram.
I was also prepared for the intense scrutiny required to analyze quantities, calories and longevity of food. I was confident with my Katadyn 0.6 L filter and two 600 ml Smart bottles.
What did freak me out was wayfinding. Wayfinding on my own. No one to discuss options with. No one to boost morale or put on the brakes. No one to rotate the map when I held it upside down.
It was decided. I’d work on my wayfinding skills. I was going alone.
Waterton to Akamina Creek
It felt weird to walk away from Dale at Alderson Lake. I stopped to gather water at the brilliant flower-rimmed, gabion-walled Carthew Lakes. My nose started to bleed. I got that under control and climbed the presiding summit. I didn’t see another soul until a couple of dozen hikers started trickling down from Cameron Lake where they had been dropped by the shuttle.
Using inReach, I sent a pre-set message to Dale at 4:17pm to say I’d arrived at Akamina Creek. It had been an eight-hour day.
Akamina to Twin Lakes
I started to leave the top part of my boots undone to relieve the pressure on an abrasion that developed above the tongue on my right boot. I had also noticed a swelling behind my left ankle; I wasn’t sure if it was an irritated bug bite or tendonitis, but it hurt. Both heels had blisters.
About one kilometre east of the campground, I headed up the cutline to the crest of the ridge. From the gusty open ridge, I watched tiny silhouettes playing around at the top.
As I was ascending one of the many ‘bumps’ on the Rowe Alternate, I saw a blondish black bear with a tiny black cub at her heels. She had stood up to analyze the other hikers’ scents and was ‘chuffing’ in agitation.
Because I practice bear avoidance, I saw few animals on the GDT. However, that doesn’t mean they were far away.
A few years ago I watched a couple of dads and their boys hike in along the narrow lakeshore of Jasper’s Geraldine while a grizzly walked out on the same path! They were whistling and chatting and never encountered the bear at all. Animals will avoid you if they know where you are.
I watched as the bear held back from the crest and then went back to grazing.
I spied Lone Lake (where I had a reservation) far below on the standard route, unreachable now from this ridge. As Mount Festubert’s three rock bands came into view, I recalled my mountain-scrambling brother Ted saying, “You don’t know what the rock is like until your nose is against it.”
Up close I found many sturdy cracks that a hand could slip into but equally as many rocks that came free as you looked dumbly at them in your hand—three points of contact; I’m okay. Every tiny ledge was dusted with scree that had to be swept off with your toe before your boot tread was secure. I climbed a little too far to the left and had to down climb to get on a better track.
My friends received Dale’s email that night: ‘Jackie texted just before 830pm that she was getting into camp… a full 12-hour day!’
Twin Lakes to Jutland
Because I now have only about 16 kilometres to the next camp, I took advantage of the scorcher of a day and did some laundry before breakfast.
Here to the summit of La Coulotte was familiar to me because of our trip at this time last year, but it had a very different feel. I had seen so many stark burns now that the Clarke Range was not as stunning at it had been. The climate change supported noticeably different flora and fauna. The wildflowers were sparse and dull. Gone were the long-antennae white-spotted sawyer pine beetles. No blue Azures flitted in the black coals to keep warm. Whole sections of bush looked like it had been sprayed with Wipeout. And the stately king Tamaracks were not as lush. Consequently, navigation was practically a cake walk due to less foliage plus the increase in hikers trudging through.
There is a meadow below Peak 2434 where the trail strangely disappears. I recognized it at once, and I heard your voice in my head, “Just walk straight through.” I did and picked up the beginning of a well-worn trail on the left. The ‘curious crest-top canyon’ held old, grungy snow as opposed to the pristine basins we had delighted in.
That evening, in my Unightie, I gathered my trowel, toilet paper, soap, hankie and towel, and headed out for a refresh. The Unightie makes it easy to wash my hair and underparts. I went to bed feeling clean.
Jutland to A28
The Castle Mountain Ski Resort is popular for resupply via mail, drop off, or someone hiking in. As planned, Dale hiked in 13 kilometres with his sleeping bag and mattress along with some other things I could indulge in for the evening. I got to wash my hair with baby shampoo and have real milk in my tea. He brought in Sambuca and fresh vegetables to enhance our freeze-dried meal! As we nestled into my once-lonely Stratospire Li Tarp Tent, we heard a familiar tick, tick, tick. Soon it was a downpour, but we were giggling because we were dry and cozy.
All night, the rain never let up.
A28 to Lynx Creek
When the rain broke, I packed up and switched back into mission mode. Out of sight of the road, the trails became quite complex. Decisions are tough when you are solo because you have no new input. No one to bounce ideas off. No one taller to see over that bush! You only have what you know and the materials you studied and took (maps, GPS, weather report, self-analysis). I decided I don’t like hiking solo.
I stood looking at my maps and GPS for several minutes before I figured out which track was my trail. Then it headed straight up another mountain ridge—in the rain.
As I leaned over a tiny stream to gather water, a big drop of blood splashed on the rocks. I had another nosebleed. Animals smelling blood crossed my mind. I stopped and rinsed my hankie thoroughly. As the rain poured down my face, I would sometimes wipe my nose. There was blood on my gloves!
That settled it. I would press on to an actual campground, Lynx Creek about eight kilometres farther. It would have flat sites, toilets and bear protection.
I’d hiked 27 kilometres. There was a self-registration fee of $23. I carried neither cash nor card. I did have my Amex number in my head, but I found no camp host.
Lynx Creek was clearly designed for campers and tent trailers. There was a rig complete with canopy and lounge chairs, but I never saw a soul. There were no bear lockers or bear hangs that I could find. The whole area appeared to be fenced but I didn’t want to take any chances. I got out my bear hang kit and steadied myself for the toss. I felt you, an ex-baseball pro watching me. Then I performed my sweetest bear hang ever!
As I hauled up my food bag, my mind kept saying “take a photo of the perfect bear hang” but my rain-soaked body just kept performing the tasks necessary to achieve a comfortable rest for the night. I listed. I prioritized. I executed.
- Hang food
- Go to the toilet
- Pitch tent fly and stash everything under it
- Lay out cooking gear protecting stove from moisture
- Retrieve food, cook, eat, and have tea
- Rehang food
- Install mesh tent body and lay out wet mattress
- Go for last pee
- Carefully remove and wring out wet outer pants, jacket, gloves, boots and socks
- Blow up mattress and swap for dry end
- Lay out sleeping bag
- Change to Unightie and stuff pillow with damp puffy
- Remove blister bandages and dry feet
- Review maps and write notes
Lynx Creek to Coleman
I carefully reapplied fresh bandages to my feet, laced up my sodden boots and left Lynx Creek. I watched a beautiful herd of free-range Black Angus in a verdant pasture. The grass was brilliant from the rain. Should have taken a picture!
A young bull, two cows and a calf came toward me on the gravel road. It seemed like a stand-off. They squished themselves off to the other side as far as they could go. I realized they were dreadfully afraid of me. Suddenly the young bull wheeled around and led the others into the bush. I let out my breath.
The rain eased some, but my pack was still heavy with wet gear. I plodded up the beautiful Willoughby Ridge, paralleling the true Great Divide one kilometre over as the crow flies. The peaks were topped with rain clouds, their skirts surrounded by mist. I took a video for you.
Would I succumb to exhaustion and random camp, keeping my schedule? Or would I push on to Coleman, arrive a day early, and hopefully get an extra night at the inn? I looked down. My feet kept moving. I carried hiking poles to construct my tent and deal with creek fords. But I’d never hiked with poles. I figured there must be something to it. So, I learned on the fly. I adjusted the length to accommodate the dominant angle of the terrain. I double-poled up short hills, working them in tandem, my palms pressing down on top of the grips to lurch me forward.
I really don’t know how I kept walking. I staggered right into the Coleman motel office. Yes, the room was available. Yes, it had a bathtub. I could hardly get out the door. I got my poles stuck in the doorway. I practically fell over the threshold. I lunged up the catwalk to the second floor. I did not stop. I turned on the bath. I started laying out my gear. Forest debris was everywhere. I’d have to apologise. I got in the bath, but it was too cold, and I got a chill. That’s when I hit the wall. The soles of my aching feet were on fire. My legs could hardly hold me up. I ran a hotter bath, got in and warmed up. I fired up my Pocket Rocket. I reconstituted my last meal, fried up some meat chips and went to bed. The open wound on the top of my foot painfully stuck to the sheets. It would take over a week to scab over. I had hiked over 31 kilometres that day.
By noon the next day, I could walk. After a third bath, the water came out clean. Dale texted and I went outside to watch for him. He had brought someone with him. It was my brother Ted and his wife Brenda! She said I looked thinner (she was right). They’d brought me lotion, a bath bomb, facial mask and shower cream. I was so glad they hadn’t witnessed my lurching and lumbering arrival. I was ready to enjoy civilization.
Total kilometres hiked: 145